The third edition of the Informatici Senza Frontiere Festival was held in Rovereto between the 17th and 19th of October. This festival is aimed at stimulating the dialogue around the social impact of new technologies. The second day opened with the meeting ‘The African Youth dreams and challenges: what can technology do?’. Among the speakers there was Maurizio Bertoldi, ISF Africa coordinator. We talked with him about the ISF activity and discussed the impact of digital technologies in Africa.
Maurizio Bertoldi, besides coordinating the projects of Informatici Senza Frontiere in Africa, is the co-founder and Chief Technology Officer of Sinapto. A company offering technological counselling. The African context is surely very different from the Western one. There are challenges and specific problems. Therefore, it is necessary to be able to adapt and target interventions, not to waste resources and in order to maximize the impacts.
Maurizio Bertoldi, where should we start?
The main theme is sustainable technology both in the Western world and (even more) in Africa.
” The damages brought by unsustainable technology are visible to anyone. For instance, I think about the mines in Congo, where they extract Coltan. Coltan is essential for the production of smartphones. Advanced technology has a very high toll, which is often paid in Africa. Nonetheless, there are some alternatives, such as the Fairphone, the sustainable smartphone that cares about who produces it and the impact on the planet.”
“Another big issue is linked to hardware disposal, which creates landfills in Ghana and Bangladesh. Less evident, but not less challenging, is the software impact. Are Bitcoin and blockchain sustainable from an energy standpoint in Africa? Informatici Senza Frontiere works to inform the population about the advantages of digital technology. Firstly, it is a universal language. If I learn the Java programming language, it is the same in New York, India and Africa. This is a very ‘disruptive’ aspect of digital technology. Furthermore, the Internet allows me to be everywhere, anywhere, at any time. These are all opportunities to take advantage of, but in an ethical, conscious and sustainable way.”
Due to the lack of primary resources, should we question whether bridging the digital divide should really be a priority in Africa. Or, should we rather consider this a primary need?
“Sometimes, we hear comments such as: “ they do not have food and you worry about bringing technology” but this logic does not hold up.”
Technology does not solve specific problems. Instead, it is an enabling factor to face many challenges.
“The open source software Open Hospital is a good example. It is used to manage hospital activities in Uganda and in many other African hospitals. Open source software is fundamental to create inclusive access to technological solutions, at least on an economic level. Then, there is certainly a need for competences, but that can be easily fixed. It is important to stimulate the collaboration among different organisations, to create solutions that can be replicated in other countries.”
“Moreover, the average population age in Africa is very low. The youth is willing to get involved, even if they often take the wrong direction. Nowadays, everyone wants to be a programmer, risking to become the exploited working class of the new millennium. We try to promote youth entrepreneurship, by promoting digital technologies. There are many interesting examples in the agritech sector, the logistic sector or the mobile app sector. In Addis Ababa only, there are five competing car sharing services, similar to Uber.”
How does Informatici Senza Frontiere place itself in this context?
“ISF aims at creating partnerships with local associations, institutions and organizations such as Cuamm, together with the Comboni missionaries. Everywhere where an IT project is necessary. We analyse the needs, draft a project and implement it working together with volunteers or aid workers.”
“Our intervention is based on three pillars. First of all, training. We create digital classrooms and train mainly the teachers to facilitate the knowledge transfer. Then, we have projects in the health sector, digitizing the infrastructures. Finally, we provide counselling for public administration and universities. Our goal is to guide choices, so to avoid waste”.
Where is ISF active in Africa?
“We are active especially in Eastern Africa: Uganda, Ethiopia, Tanzania. But also Somaliland, Sudan, Kenya. Whereas in the west, we have projects in Cameroon and Senegal. About ten countries overall.”
If you had to choose an exemplary case among your African projects, which one would you choose ?
“For sure the Saint Luke Hospital in Wolisso, Ethiopia. It is a perfect example of the way we work. We collaborated with Cuamm and contributed to make it the first entirely paperless hospital in the area.”
In conclusion, could you tell us something about the Informatici Senza Frontiere Festival. What does it stand for ?
“Now, it is a well established event. This is the third edition. In the beginning, we used to organize two annual assemblies: an internal one and a second one aiming to create a moment for exchanging opinions with the public. We bet on Open Source and networks are, for us, not just the ones made of cables.
Three years ago we decided to turn the second annual assembly into a real festival, targeting especially to youth and schools. It is a moment to take stock of the situation and share technological, robotic and AI knowledge, without forgetting an ethical and sustainable approach. Basically, the message that we want to bring across is that technology is a tool to improve results. It does not solve problems by its own but it helps facing them more efficiently. For instance, it can help manage hospitals and schools better.”